//Asbestos: The Magic Mineral No One Wants except India

Asbestos: The Magic Mineral No One Wants except India

By: Indrajeet Rai With inputs from Rahul Agarwal

From all the debates and discussions surrounding Clemenceau, what is apparent is that its arrival in Alang depends on one single factor: the amount of asbestos contained in it. This ‘asbestos yardstick’ raises a host of questions. What is asbestos? Is it hazardous in nature? What are its effects on human health as well as on the environment? Is it illegal to import asbestos? What are the provisions regarding the trans-boundary movement of Asbestos in particular and of the hazardous materials in general?

The word asbestos is of Greek origin and means ‘indestructible’. Asbestos has been hailed as a magic mineral. By its virtue of high durability with great tensile strength, it has been used in over 3000 products. Prominent among them being: cement products, water pipes, gasket sheet materials, roof materials, paints and in thermoplastics etc.

Asbestos occurs in six natural forms. However, Chrysotile, Amosite and Crocidolite are the most commonly found forms of Asbestos. Chrysotile alone accounts for 90 percent of the total asbestos used in the industry.

Like the magic material ‘plastic’, asbestos-the magic mineral- has also become a bane for humanity and the environment. It has become a global health hazard. Asbestos has emerged as a proven carcinogen and the European Union has classified it as the Category one carcinogen. In America alone, where at one point of time asbestos use was very high, asbestos has caused over 2,00, 000 deaths. It is estimated that that there will be more than half million asbestos cancer deaths in Western Europe over next 35 years. As per a USA Today report, asbestos could claim about I million lives in the developing world in the next 30 years.

In India, the National Institute of Occupational Health(NIOH) has done a number of health studies that found the prevalence of asbestosis among the workers working in asbestos industries. Asbestosis is a scarring of lungs that leads to breathing problems and heart failure. In a study the Cancer Research Institute Chennai has found that 3-4 percent of all lung cancer in India were asbestos-related. The same study, quoting from the American and the European reports, also estimates that on an average 30 deaths are caused daily by asbestos-related diseases.

Most of the developed world has banned the use of asbestos. Over 40 countries in the world have banned the use of asbestos and related products. In 1999, the EU decided to ban all usage of asbestos in its member countries by 2015. Owing to public health concerns, in the US, the asbestos use is down to 2 percent of its peak use during the 1970s. Canada has started exporting 96 percent of the asbestos mined in its territory.

On the other hand, India has been continuously trying to promote the import of asbestos in the country. Thus, it has reduced import duty on asbestos from a peak of 110 to 50 percent while it has brought down the custom duty on asbestos from 78 per cent in 1995-96 to 25 percent in 1999-2000.

In India asbestos is a Rs. 800 crore industry that provides direct employment to about 6000 people and indirect employment to about 1,00, 000 people. Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar are major asbestos mining states in India. According to Dr S K Dave of NIOH, "the total use of asbestos in the country is 1.25 lakh tonnes, out of which more than nearly 1.0 lakh tonnes is being imported. About 90% of asbestos is being used by the asbestos cement industry."

The Indian Standards Institution is the pioneer institute that specifies national standards relating to asbestos mining, manufacturing and handling. Hazardous Wastes (Handling and Management) Rules 1989 and the Environment Protection Act (1986) also regulate use of asbestos in India. India has banned the import of dust and fibre asbestos wastes. But India has been reluctant to impose a blanket ban on the import as well as mining of asbestos in the country. The two most important reasons, given by the government, for not banning asbestos are: the absence of cheaper alternatives to asbestos products, since asbestos products are cheaper and are mostly used by the poor in the country, and the absence of conclusive proof for ill-health effects of asbestos products. The tacit reasons may be the clout of the Rs.800 crore industry and not so direct exposure to asbestos and related products of the people who matter.

The case of Clemenceau and the amount of asbestos contained in it once again raises the issues of human rights and environmental justice. France has banned the import of asbestos in its territory. For this, it has to fight a battle with Canada in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO has given a judgement in favour of France upholding its decision to ban the import of asbestos from Canada.

However, the same France is more than eager, in giving a green signal to Clemenceau to export the asbestos to India. Obviously, once again the attempt is being made to transfer risk from one country to another and from one social group to another.

Saturday, January 28, 2006 , zeenews